Wednesday, May 31, 2023

[Nikkei Asia] Taiwan's island internet cutoff highlights infrastructure risks

Taiwan's island internet cutoff highlights infrastructure risks

Region has to improve security and resiliency of critical undersea cable networks

By Jason Hsu and Charles Mok 

Jason Hsu is a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a former legislator in Taiwan. Charles Mok is a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center and former legislator in Hong Kong.

In early February, the two cables that connect the Matsu Islands at the north end of the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan itself were each broken by Chinese ships in separate incidents over the course of a week.

Quick relief was unavailable. No undersea cable repair ship could reach the islands, which are controlled by Taiwan but just offshore from Fuzhou, a coastal Chinese provincial capital, until late April.

While it is unclear whether the cables were cut intentionally, the incidents serve as a warning of the vulnerability of Taiwan's digital infrastructure.

The threat of cyberwarfare has gotten a lot of attention in Taiwan. The island's government, civil society and public are well aware of the need to combat disinformation, especially in relation to elections, and to build defenses against millions of daily cyberattacks.

A particular intense wave of cyberattacks, some targeting critical infrastructure, came last August in the wake of a visit to Taipei by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But a complete loss of Taiwan's connection to the internet would be particularly devastating.

Looking more broadly at East and Southeast Asia, it is clear that critical digital infrastructure is under increased threat and uncertainty due to U.S.-China tensions and Beijing's belligerence in the South China Sea.

Since 2020, Washington has been refusing to license American companies to invest in undersea cable consortia with Chinese companies or in new cables that would connect directly to China, including Hong Kong.

This has undermined Hong Kong's previous role as a premier hub of regional internet traffic.

Due to Washington's change of policy, the much-touted Pacific Link Cable Network, which was to be the first to link California and Hong Kong directly and has backing from both Google and Facebook parent Meta Platforms, had to be rerouted to terminate in Taiwan and the Philippines.

Another cable project that would have linked California to Hong Kong, the Bay to Bay Express Cable System, backed by and Meta, also dropped Hong Kong in favor of the Philippines. Indeed, the Philippines has emerged as a winner in the reconfiguration of the region's critical digital infrastructure.

New undersea cable projects connecting the U.S. West Coast to Singapore that might previously have been routed through Japan and Hong Kong, such as the Echo Submarine Cable System and the Bifrost Cable System, are instead taking paths past Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to bypass the South China Sea to avoid possible disruption from China's maritime claims there. At the same time, China has begun to forcefully demand a say over projects to lay and maintain undersea cables in the South China Sea, causing significant delays in the work.

This is why the Matsu incident should not be viewed as an isolated event, or just about the disruption of a small portion of Taiwan's connectivity. Rather, the incident highlights the need to focus on the security and resiliency of the critical digital infrastructure of Taiwan, East Asia and Southeast Asia more broadly.

It was thus no surprise that concerns about secure and resilient digital infrastructure were a key focus of discussions at the Group of Seven digital ministers' meeting in Takasaki, Japan, last month.

The action plan adopted then urged particular attention to the need for data route diversity and redundancy, ensuring that undersea cable routes are secure and working with the World Bank and other international institutions to facilitate critical digital infrastructure projects for the underserved regions in the world.

Similarly, after a short meeting of Quad leaders on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima this month, the grouping jointly announced the new Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience to strengthen and support quality undersea cable systems in the Indo-Pacific area. The four Quad nations each have strategic maritime interests that stretch from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, including through the contentious South China Sea.

Taiwan itself needs to do more to shore up its digital resiliency. The government is investing around $130 million to build and launch two satellites in 2025 and 2026 to explore the use of low-Earth orbit communications systems. However, this effort is too little, too late. Such satellites may be viable as supplementary backup systems but cannot replace the stability and capacity of fiber-optic cables.

Taiwan should also seek to coordinate with the new Quad cable initiative. Such efforts are especially important to Taipei's ability to assure investors that the island has enough redundancies to keep its networks up and running even if China imposes a blockade.

Taiwan should also team up with Japan and South Korea, two of its closest regional and democratic neighbors, to co-invest in advanced, high-capacity undersea cable projects to sustain bandwidth growth for their digital economies to continue to thrive. An East Asian digital trade and technology pact among these economies would go a long way toward leveraging their markets to create more opportunities in digital transformation and data trade.

The trio could further collaborate by allocating capacity for shipbuilding and providing services for undersea cable laying and repair. This would be a boon not just in case Matsu is cut off again, but could ensure expedited repair assistance for the whole region.

Published by Nikkei Asia, May 31, 2023


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